AN: This was written for 27-jaredjensen's comment fic meme. Posting here because I will be writing a sequel.
There were clues.
Kind of like in hunting. There are always clues. If they can piece them together, they can figure out what they're up against and how to take it down.
Looking back now, the clues are so fucking obvious. The puzzle is whole.
But at the time, pieces were all Dean had. And instead of putting them together, he watched as everything fell apart.
When Sam answered the phone, Dean could hear the distraction in his voice. No doubt Sam had his nose buried in either a book or his girlfriend's neck.
"Hey, Sammy. You busy?"
"Yeah. No. Studying."
Dean glanced at the motel room's clock and took a pull from the beer in his hand. "Now?"
"Oh. Want me to call back?"
Sam sighed and said, "No, it's fine," even though it obviously wasn't. "Where are you?"
"West Virginia. An angry spirit was going after her ex-boyfriend. Apparently he cheated and she was on her way to bitch him out when she died in a car crash. Had to burn the bones."
"Good." And there it went. Dean lost Sam's nose to that book again.
He took another sip of beer. "Yeah. When we finished the hunt, me and Dad took a knitting class. I knitted a poncho."
"Uh huh. Cool."
"And then, after that, I won the lottery. Seventeen million dollars. Spent it all on rock salt and porn."
Dean sighed and set his beer on the nightstand. "Sammy."
"It's 10:00. On a Friday night. You're in college. Go have a life."
"Sorry," Sam said. "There's just this test on Monday, and I'm kind of stressed about it."
"Okay, really stressed."
"You're going to do great, though. You're the smartest kid I know."
"Dean, this is Stanford. Pre-law. Not exactly high school home ec. And if…"
"Hey," Dean interrupted, holding up a hand Sam couldn't see. "No arguing. 11:00, okay? One more hour. Then give yourself a break. Where's that girlfriend of yours?"
Dean smirked. "Is she naked?"
"You're just telling me that so I won't picture her naked, aren't you?"
"It's not working, just so you know. Damn, Jess is so out of your league."
"God, Dean, stop."
Dean laughed. "Fine. Hey. Sammy. One hour, okay? Don't stress so much. You'll do great."
There was a pause, and when Sam spoke again his voice was softer. "Yeah. Okay. Thanks."
They said goodbye. Dean tossed his cell phone on the bed, picked up his beer, and felt like a semi-decent big brother.
Dean hated doing research without Sam. Hell, he hated doing a lot of things without Sam. Hated long car trips without him. Hated hunting without him. Hated staying in grungy motel rooms and eating in greasy diners and hearing jokes with dirty punch lines, all without his little brother.
But at the moment he was bent over dusty volumes of books with confusing words in tiny print (Sam's specialty) so he really, really missed researching with his brother.
When Dean's phone vibrated in his pocket, he expected it to be Sam. But it wasn't. He headed outside and squinted in the bright sunlight. "Hey. Jess."
"Dean. Hey. How are you?" The hesitance in her voice made Dean's stomach twist.
"I'm good. You? Is everything okay? Sammy okay?"
"Yeah," she said quickly, and Dean breathed a sigh of relief just in time for her to add, "I mean, no. Yes. God, I don't know."
Dean pinched the bridge of his nose if only to keep his hand out of his pocket, away from the keys that would take him to Palo Alto right the fuck now. "What's going on, Jess?"
"I think he's really stressed. He's not sleeping. He's studying all the time. He's doing fine in all of his classes, but he still seems so…worried. He's jumpy. Jittery." A pause. "Was he ever like this with you?"
"Where is he now?"
Dean took a seat on a bench outside the library entrance. "Coffee. He drinks too much of it when he's working hard. He drinks it so he can stay up and study, then he can't sleep, so he drinks more. It's an endless cycle, so you have to put an end to it. Hide the coffee maker. Smash the pot. Get rid of anything that isn't decaf."
"Coffee," Jess said, and Dean could practically hear her chewing on her thumb nail. "I didn't think of that. I'll try it. Fuck, he needs sleep. He's kind of sick, too."
"Yeah? How sick?"
"Scratchy throat. Runny nose. No fever. Just a cold."
Dean nodded and ran one finger against the grain of the wood. "That'll probably go away once he gets some sleep."
"Probably," Jess echoed.
"He'll be okay. He's got you."
"Yeah. But I'm not sure I'll ever measure up to you."
Dean smiled and told himself that it didn't hurt. "Apple juice."
"He won't ask for it, but that's what he likes to drink when he's sick."
"Apple juice," she said. "Thanks, Dean."
They said goodbye. Dean tapped his phone against his knee.
Then he went back to his table and tried to figure out things that Sam would have figured out three days ago.
The phone call pulled Dean out of an important interview and earned him a death glare from his dad, but what was he supposed to do? Let it go to voicemail?
Dean waited for more, but it didn't come. "You good?"
The pause was almost as telling as the words that followed. "When Mom died, what was she wearing?"
If there was a list of the very last things Dean expected to hear from his brother on a random Tuesday afternoon, that question would be on it. He swallowed hard. "The last memory I have of her is in a nightgown. White. Soft. Smelled like her perfume."
"Okay." Sam said the word like nothing was okay at all. He sounded off. Breathless. Upset. "It was the ceiling, right? The thing…the fire…it was on the ceiling?"
Dean took a seat on the steps outside and rested elbows on knees. "What's going on, Sam?"
"Just tell me, Dean. Please."
"Yeah. The ceiling. Why?"
"Did she…was she…" Sam let out a shuddering breath. "Shit, never mind."
"Seriously, dude. You're freaking me out. What's with the 20 questions?"
Another pause. "I had a nightmare."
Dean lifted his eyebrows. "A nightmare? About Mom?"
"Yeah. Sorry. It kind of freaked me out, too."
"It was just a dream, Sammy. What's done is done. No point in getting worked up over it."
"Okay," Sam said, only it still sounded like it wasn't. "Thanks, Dean."
"Welcome. Hey, how's school going? Have things settled down now that those exams are over?"
"Oh, yeah, I didn't tell you yet. My professors nominated me for this award, this pre-law thing, and I won it."
"Of course you did, geek boy," Dean said in the most proud way. "So, what does that mean? Is there going to be a ceremony? Should I head to California? Invest in a digital camera and a picture frame?"
When Sam spoke again, Dean could hear the smile on his face. "Shut up. But no, it's not a big deal. Just a certificate and my name in an article or something. It really makes the studying worth it, though. It'll look really good on my resume, and when I…"
As Sam rambled on about things Dean didn't understand but wanted to hear about forever, he sounded better. Calm. Like the first part of this conversation never happened. Dean leaned on the step behind him and closed his eyes and smiled.
Unwinding from solo hunts was hard. Dean could stitch his own wounds, clean the guns, and re-stock the supplies on his own. No problem. The hard part was dealing with all the silence.
Sometimes he was tired enough that he could pass out and sleep through until morning, when it was time to get up and start over again.
But sometimes he lay awake in the silence, angsting out and wanting to hear his brother's voice or his loud, even breathing or the laugh that bubbled up from his toes through six feet of legs and arms and lungs before escaping.
Dean glanced at the clock. It was only 11:30 Stanford time. He dialed Sam's number and smiled when the ringing cut out the silence.
But when the phone picked up, it wasn't Sam's voice.
"Hey, Dean. Sorry. Sam's upstairs. But I've been meaning to call you, anyway." In the background came the click of a door closing and the crackle wind makes against a cell phone.
"Yeah? About good things or bad things?" Dean asked even though if things were good, Jess wouldn't need to call.
"Sam things. He seemed to be doing better for a while. Sleeping some. Not quite so freaked out. But now he's not sleeping and barely eating and wearing tracks in the carpet with his pacing. Finals aren't for a few weeks. He shouldn't be this much of a mess already."
Dean glanced at the empty double bed next to his. "You're still keeping him away from caffeine?"
"Yeah. I mean, I'm dying of withdrawal, but I keep it out of the house."
"But…what else can I do?"
This was uncharted territory. It physically hurt Dean to say, "I don't know, Jess."
The line crackled with another gust of wind. "That's what I was afraid of. But I just…I thought you should know."
"Do you think I should stop by for a while?"
A pause. "I don't know. Maybe if he's not better after the weekend?"
"Okay." In his mind, Dean was already mapping out a path south and west.
"Fuck, it's cold out here."
Dean gave a half-smile. "You're in California. I'm in Massachusetts. I think I win."
"Probably. Hey, go back inside where it's warm, okay? See if you can get my brother to sleep."
"Okay. Thanks, Dean."
"Take care of him for me. And keep me posted."
Dean crawled between the sheets but still couldn't sleep because he still hadn't heard his brother's voice or his breathing or that laugh and it was too fucking silent.
"Tell me everything's going to be okay."
It was the next day. The shaky statement that sent chills up and down Dean's spine was the first thing he heard when he answered the phone. "Sammy?"
"Tell me everything's going to be okay, Dean. I need you to tell me that everything's going to be okay."
Sam choked out something that wasn't a sob. "Nothing. Everything. Tell me, Dean. Tell me, tell me, tell me."
"Okay, okay." Dean threw the newspaper he was reading in the trash. He slung his bag over his shoulder and pulled his keys out of his pocket. "Everything's going to be okay, Sammy. Everything's going to be fine."
When Sam spoke again it was a breathless whisper. "How do you know?"
"Because I'm on my way. I'll be there soon. I'll make sure everything's going to be okay."
Sam let out another one of those not-sobs before asking, "Yeah?"
"Shit, yes. Sammy, what the hell is going on?"
"I don't know. I have a bad feeling. I feel bad. I'm not sure if I can do this anymore."
Dean didn't ask what "this" was because he wasn't sure if he wanted to hear the answer. Instead, he started the car and hit the gas pedal and flew towards the expressway. "Did you sleep last night?"
"Sleep. I'll be there when you wake up."
"I can't sleep. I have class and this paper I have to write and…"
"Fuck all of that," Dean said. "Look at what the stress is doing to you. Take a day off. You need it. Sleep. When I get there, we'll stay up all night and talk this shit out until you're doing better, okay?"
"Don't apologize. Just go sleep, okay?"
As soon as they hung up, Dean dialed Jess's number. He got her voicemail.
Then he slammed his fist against the steering wheel, because fuck, Stanford was supposed to be better than this.
When the door opened, Dean couldn't even say hello before he got a face full of Sam's shoulder in the biggest little brother hug possible. He patted Sam's back, then held his brother out at arm's length so he could get a good look at him.
The first things he noticed were the pale skin and the dark circles under Sam's eyes. "You didn't sleep, did you?"
"No. I went to class and wrote a paper and researched law schools."
Dean felt good enough about finally being in the same room as Sam that he didn't feel bad saying, "You suck."
"I know. Shit, I'm so glad to see you. You want a beer?"
Dean kicked himself for not getting here sooner. "Yeah. If you'll have one with me." He looked around the kitchen as Sam pulled out two bottles and an opener. There were books stacked on the kitchen table. A paper on the fridge with a red "A" at the top. A note on the counter reminding them that they needed milk.
"Thanks," Dean said as he took the beer. He leaned against the counter. "Where's Jess?"
"Work. She'll be home in an hour or two."
Dean nodded and held the cold bottle against the inside of his wrist. "Good. Okay. Talk. What the hell is up with you lately?"
The sip Sam took was too long to be anything other than a stalling tactic. "I don't know. I'm just stressed."
"Understatement. Care to elaborate?"
Sam sat down at the kitchen table. "I'm just not sure if I'm cut out for this. I have to keep my grades up to keep my scholarship and to get into law school. But I studied for this midterm for like 3 weeks, and I still failed it. I don't know how I could have studied any harder."
"That sucks," Dean said, because if his nerd of a brother couldn't pass the test, then who could?
"Yeah. And I don't know. I have this bad feeling. Like I'm going to fail, and I'm going to lose Jess, and then what am I going to do?"
Dean didn't say the obvious answer. The one Sam didn't want to hear. Instead he said, "None of that's going to happen. It was one test. You'll make up for it. And Jess is fucking crazy about you. I've seen the two of you together. She's not going anywhere."
Sam nodded but didn't say anything.
"You're sleep-deprived. That makes everything worse. You can't sleep because you're stressed out and you're stressed out because you can't sleep."
Sam nodded again. "Yeah."
"So, tonight you're going to sleep. I'll drug you up to your eyeballs if I have to, but you're going to sleep. Then tomorrow I'll quiz you on spelling words or whatever, maybe we'll drink a few beers, hang out with Jess, and everything will be okay. I promise, Sammy. It will be. Everything."
For the first time since Dean arrived, he watched as some of the tension drained out of Sam's shoulders. "Thanks, Dean."
Dean resisted the urge to go hug the shit out of his brother. "So, that's all? Not that I'm saying all of that isn't enough, but there's nothing else you're not telling me?"
The fact that Sam looked away spoke volumes. He picked at one corner of the label of his beer bottle. "I've been thinking about Mom a lot lately, I guess."
Dean motioned to the kitchen around them. "That's probably from all of this. The papers on the fridge and the notes about milk and the people you're meeting who have parents and holidays and normal childhoods. It would be impossible not to compare all of that with what we had."
More tension left Sam's shoulders. "I didn't think about that. Yeah. Makes sense."
Dean emptied his beer and went to the fridge for another. "We can talk more about all of this tomorrow. But right now, can we find a crappy movie on TV? You need to chill so you can sleep."
They ended up on the couch in front of a horror movie, touching at knees and elbows and shoulders. It turned out Dean didn't need to drug Sam. He fell asleep on his own while his beer was still cold. Dean nudged the volume down and just sat with his brother.
Jess got home before the movie ended. She smiled when she walked in. "You're here," she whispered. "And he's asleep."
Dean smiled. "Yeah. How was work?"
"It was work. Should we move him to bed?"
Dean looked at Sam's head on his shoulder. "I don't want to wake him. I'll send him to bed if he wakes up."
"Okay," Jess said with a nod. "You need anything?"
"Nah. I'm good."
Jess carefully placed a blanket over Sam. She ran her fingers through his hair with a whisper-light touch. If Sam thought he was going to lose her, he was insane. "We'll talk tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I think he's going to be okay."
Jess smiled like it was the best thing she'd heard all day. "I'm going to go crash. Goodnight, Dean."
They slept like that for a while. Sam stirred every so often and Dean woke every time. Sam never did.
But then one time Dean woke and Sam's head was no longer on his shoulder. The sound of gasping breath made Dean sit straight up. "Sammy?"
No response. Just gasping. It was dark in the living room, but Dean could make out Sam sitting about a foot away from him, leaning forward with his head in his hands. "Sam, what's wrong?" Dean demanded.
"My chest," Sam panted.
Shit. Shit, shit. Dean fumbled with the lamp until it clicked on. He dove to the ground in front of his brother and pulled Sam's hands away from his face. "Your chest hurts?"
Sam nodded. He was as pale as Dean had ever seen him. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. He was gasping for breath and clutching at the heaving muscles over his heart. Pain and fear were clear in his eyes. "Can't…"
"Don't talk if you can't breathe," Dean said, his voice even. He pressed his fingers to Sam's neck and didn't even bother counting. It was obvious Sam's heart was beating too fucking fast. "We're going to go to the hospital, okay? Get you checked out."
Jess appeared in the living room, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. "What's going on?"
Dean swallowed down panic and said, "He's having chest pain and trouble breathing. Do you want to come with us to the hospital?"
"Sam?" Jess asked.
But there was enough panic in her voice that Dean stopped her. Sam needed them to be calm. "Jess. Go change. We'll meet you outside."
Jess hesitated before nodding. When she left the room, her eyes were still on Sam.
"Okay, Sammy," Dean said. "I'm going to get you out to the car." He put one arm under his brother's knees and the other around his back, where he could feel Sam's too-shallow breaths. In his arms, Sam pressed his forehead into Dean's collarbone and clutched at his shirt and shook and gasped and shook some more. "It's going to be okay," Dean said. "I promise." Only he didn't feel like he could promise that anymore.
By the time Sam was in the back seat, Jess was dressed and climbing in next to him. The fear in her eyes was as intense as the fear Dean felt.
"He's going to be fine," Dean said, and held his brother for a few seconds longer before passing him off to Jess.
Dean drove and Jess alternated between soothing words for Sam and directions for Dean and Sam gasped and choked out sobs with air he didn't have.
Within 10 minutes, Dean was carrying Sam into the ER, where he was taken to a room immediately. Chest pain gets a pass to the front of the line.
They hooked Sam up to heart monitors and a pulse oximeter. They took his blood pressure and pulse and frowned at the numbers. They drew vial after vial of blood and started an IV.
Dean stood in the corner of the room and held Jess's hand because he couldn't hold Sam's.
This couldn't be happening. Nothing could be wrong with Sam's heart. Sam's heart was too healthy. Too strong.
Too much a part of Dean's heart.
At some point, one of the doctors motioned Dean into the hall.
As much as he didn't want to leave, he had to find out what was going on with Sam. "Stay with him," he told Jess.
She nodded, but didn't let go of Dean's fingers. He squeezed her hand once and gently tugged his fingers out of hers. With one more glance at his brother, he headed into the hallway.
"You're Sam's brother?" the doctor asked. His ID badge read "Dr. Kyle Blanchard, Cardiologist."
"We don't have Sam's blood tests back yet, but as of right now it looks like Sam's heart is fine."
Relief and confusion competed to be the front runner in Dean's mind. "But…his pulse…he can't breathe…"
"Oh, Sam's symptoms are very real. But I don't think they're cardiac in nature. His EKG was perfect. Has Sam been under any unusual stress lately?"
"He's pre-law at Stanford. I'd say so," Dean snapped, because why was this guy out here talking about his brother's stress when Sam was in there, struggling to breathe?
The doctor nodded. "I think what we're looking at here is a panic attack."
With those last two words, the puzzle pieces began to fall into place. "Panic attack," he echoed, trying the words out.
"I'm going to give him a mild sedative. See if that helps relieve his symptoms. We'll go from there, okay?"
Dean nodded, the words panic attack still swirling through his mind. The clues were all there. Everything fit. How had Dean missed it?
He followed the doctor back into the room. A few of the nurses had backed off, so Jess was holding Sam's hand. He was staring up at her, tears running down his face, still gasping and holding his chest.
As soon as Dean approached, Sam's gaze shifted. "You're fine," Dean assured, one hand on his brother's leg. "They're going to give you medication that might help."
The doctor injected a small vial into Sam's IV. It was like flipping a switch. Within seconds, Sam's breathing began to even out. The grip on his chest loosened. His muscles relaxed. The heart monitor slowed its frantic pace.
"Sam?" the doctor asked. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Sam said. He sounded completely wiped out.
"Does your chest still hurt?"
Sam shook his head and Jess wiped the last of his tears away.
"Vitals are leveling out," a nurse chimed in.
"What happened?" Sam asked, letting his head fall back against a pillow.
"You had a panic attack," the doctor explained. "That's why your chest hurt and you couldn't breathe. We gave you a sedative to help you relax. You're going to be just fine."
"Hear that, Sammy?" Dean asked, squeezing his brother's leg. "You're okay. You're going to be okay."
Sam's gaze locked on Dean.
But even with the sedative, Sam still looked fucking terrified.
There were clues.
Such fucking obvious clues.
If Dean would have put the puzzle pieces together sooner, maybe he could have prevented things from getting this bad.
But now Sam's home from the ER with a prescription for anxiety medication and a list of breathing exercises and the phone numbers of 10 different therapists he won't call.
"Maybe you should take a break from school for a while," Dean suggests. They're back on the couch, only this time Sam's head is on Dean's knee. Jess is at the pharmacy, filing the prescription. Dean is running one finger along the collar of Sam's T-shirt at the back of his neck.
"Maybe," Sam echoes.
Dean tips Sam's chin in his direction so he can look his brother in the eye. "That's not the first panic attack you've had, is it?"
Sam hesitates before shaking his head. "I've been having them for a few weeks. I just didn't know they could get that bad."
Dean's own chest hurts. "I'm sorry, Sammy."
"Not your fault."
He tugs at Sam's earlobe. "Next time something's going on, tell me, okay? Or Jess. Tell someone."
Sam turns his head back so that his cheek is against Dean's leg and his gaze is hidden. "There's one more thing."
"The dreams I've been having about Mom? About her dying? I figured it out last night." He pauses. "They're not about Mom."
This is logic that Dean doesn't follow. "What do you mean?"
"In my dreams, it's not Mom burning on the ceiling. It's Jess."
"No," Sam interrupts. He twists around so that they're facing each other again. "Don't fucking tell me that I'm being ridiculous, Dean. It was so vivid last night. It's not Mom. It's Jess. And she's pinned up on the ceiling in our bedroom, wearing her white nightgown, her hair spread all around, bleeding from her stomach. Then there's fire everywhere and she's gone."
Dean closes his eyes. Another puzzle piece locks into place.
The hair. The blood. Sam never heard about those details. Dean's sure of it.
"I can't lose her, Dean," Sam says, voice tight with tears. "I can't lose her like Dad lost Mom."
Dean forces his eyes open and sees panic all over Sam's face. "Hey. You gotta calm down, Sammy. Breathe."
Sam forces breath through his tears. The sedative must still be working because the panic levels out before tapering off.
"Good," Dean says softly, wiping Sam's cheeks. "Good job, Sammy."
They're quiet for a minute or two. Then Sam asks, "What am I going to do?"
Dean runs one thumb along Sam's jaw line and remembers when he taught Sam with too much shaving cream and a safety razor that left stubble behind.
"I can't leave her. But I can't lose her. What am I going to do?"
"I don't know," Dean admits. "But whatever you do, whatever happens, we'll get through it, okay? Together."
Sam nods. They sit like that for a while. Dean watches Sam's chest slowly rise and fall.
The last piece is in place.
The puzzle is complete.
But then Jess walks in with a pharmacy bag in her hands and a smile on her face.
And Dean wishes this puzzle formed a different picture.